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Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North): Most of the debate has involved procedure, which, I admit, I do not find especially interesting in many respects. I may be heavily criticised from both sides of the House, but I want to suggest that we look at the state of affairs that has brought the debate about.
We need to be a little more profound than to decide who is right, who is wrong, who is honourable, who is dishonourable, how a certain Committee should work and whether things should be held in public or in private. If
Column 1257we examine the underlying problems that have brought all this about, we will find that the underlying problems do not lie with the law, but with what the public perceive and the morality that they would like us to observe.
I am conscious of what the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), said when he spoke about our moving with the times. What was probably considered satisfactory under Lloyd George, and possibly later still under Clement Attlee, would not be acceptable today. We live in an era when the public are much more conscious of what goes on in this place and are much more conscious of the activities or inactivity of Members. Until such time as we tackle the underlying problem, all the procedural alterations in the world will not make an iota of difference. What is required is that when people come here as Members of Parliament, that is their only source of employment and their only source of remuneration.
If it is said that Conservative Members are heavily involved with business and receive payment for advice, consultancies, or any other activity, there is almost sure to be the riposte from the Government Benches: "On the Labour side, the trade union movement has a heavy involvement and it too makes a financial contribution to the Labour party, and indeed to Labour Members". If any Conservative Member wishes to say that, I would accept that argument.
It will not make me popular with Opposition Members, but I believe that the only way that Members of the House will regain the respect of the public is to be seen not to have any vested interests, and not to be involved with paid remunerative work purely because they are Members of the House of Commons. Few hon. Members would be considered to be good consultants or advisers if they were not Members of the House. If they were simply members of the public, they would not be considered, and the various companies and organisations would not want their services, and would not be prepared to pay them. Until that problem is tackled, and until Members of Parliament are solely paid for the job that they do here on behalf of the public, the public who put them here--with great trust, because they respect them-- there will be no improvement. We might get the present problems out of the road, but they will recur. They will continue to recur until such time as there is a radical appraisal of the
responsibilities and duties of a Member of Parliament.
Madam Deputy Speaker: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I would point out to him that the purpose of the debate is to decide whether the Select Committee on Privileges sits in private or in public. He is now going very wide of that.
I have got out what I wanted to say, but I wish to make the following argument about private versus public hearings. No one should fear evidence being taken in public, and no one who has to make a decision on that evidence should be afraid to explain why they made that decision. That is what the public send us here for--to consider things, and to make decisions. They have the right to have the evidence in the same way as we have, so that they can decide whether we are doing a good job.
Column 1258I have said all that I wish to say on the subject. I hope that all Members in the House will consider a more radical appraisal of the present situation, because the present situation is a symptom of a malaise that we are not tackling.
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): Many of the arguments that I wished to make have been made by other hon. Members, but some were made over and over again. There is a danger, with the time running so short, that it will prevent some hon. Member presenting a new argument.
I briefly ask the House to consider the debate in the context of the experience of the Select Committee on Members' Interests. I have been its Chairman for more years than I care to remember but, during that time, we have had to consider some delicate issues concerning Members on both sides of the House. That has led, in some cases, to public inquiries; inquiries that have led to public reports, which have led to considerable controversy. We have also considered Members' complaints, not only in private and oral hearings, but by correspondence.
In referring to our experience of the Committee, it is not my wish, nor would I presume, to tell the Select Committee of Privileges how to go about its business. Its current terms of reference are much broader than those to which we, in the Select Committee on Members' Interests, are accustomed.
Whenever possible, our attitude has been that we must try to make our affairs, and the decisions that we arrive at, as transparent as possible. That is why, when we consider evidence as to what action one should take about a specific issue such as lobbying, or the effect that outside interests may have on Members' behaviour, we have brought in the public to listen to the evidence that we take. That has contributed to the public's better understanding of the manner in which we carry out our duties, but we have drawn the line and we were right to do so.
I have not heard anyone complain publicly outside the House about the manner in which hon. Members conduct their proceedings privately, although one complaint has been made in the House. We consider a complaint against an hon. Member privately. For various reasons that have been adumbrated mainly by Conservative Members, we believe that there are occasions when respect for the public deserves a balance of view--we must also respect the right of hon. Members to privacy and to natural justice.
The arguments have been fairly well rehearsed. Hon. Members all recognise the points that have been made about the advent of television and the media and the instant reporting of often difficult questions to hon. Members who come before my Committee and who have no opportunity, as they would in court, to receive legal advice about whether they should answer a question that may be incriminating. Appositely, people have talked of the risks that exist when Committee Members give an account of what they are doing that is fair to the people who come before them, let alone to themselves. They are the subject of instant reporting by the media.
That is the media's job. I used to work in the media. I know their responsibilities. There is no reason why they should be put in the difficult and impossible position of
Column 1259being openly invited to a Committee that they wish to report and that they have been given permission to report but which they cannot report in the depth that is demanded or with considered, mature reflection. Reporting is bound to be instant and there are bound to be instant judgments. Many of my hon. Friends have advanced those arguments very well but we should not forget another point. I was involved in a libel trial. If I had lost it, I would have been a liar and lost a lot of money. When an hon. Member comes before a Select Committee, certainly the one of which I am the Chairman, he faces serious charges. It is not pleasant to know that that experience awaits him. However nice or kind one may be, he knows that his reputation, his conduct and, in some cases, his career are on the line. It is wrong, therefore, for the press to give immediate publicity to what he says when he does not have the legal advice that he can obtain in a court, which also imposes restrictions on press reporting to ensure that justice is done and that a trial is not prejudiced. That seems obvious. I should have thought that the practical lessons that we have learnt from such cases justify the attitude that we have taken in Committee.
As I said earlier, I have presided over a number of complaints. It was not a pleasant task or something that anyone could enjoy but I have always been much impressed that my colleagues in Committee from both sides of the House have responded with objectivity and fairness and have faced up to their responsibilities honourably, as we would expect. Our private hearings have never been regarded by Committee Members as a hole-in-the-corner exercise designed to cover up an hon. Member's misdeeds. If they were, that would have been apparent when the House considered our published reports, the evidence that goes with them and the votes in Committee.
If hon. Members do not have the confidence to express confidence in the integrity of our procedures, how on earth can we expect the public to share that confidence? One of the more unfortunate things that has happened in the past few months has been the constant nit-picking by some people, who are not at all friends of the House, about the integrity of its procedures. How small the voice has been from time to time of hon. Members standing in our defence. When it comes to matters affecting hon. Members, we have an honourable tradition of upholding fairness and justice and of being courageous in dealing with such matters as we think fit.
As I mentioned earlier, one doubt has been expressed about the way in which we conduct procedures concerning complaints. It was first made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). Some hon. Members have suggested that we should pay closer regard to the practice of the courts, that we are not always as fair as we might be because we do not have the experience of learned counsel, and that people who come before us do not have the benefit of counsel. I understand those arguments. The Committee should always be prepared to listen to arguments that could strengthen the Register of Members' Interests, its enforcement--I shall not go too wide on this, Madam Deputy Speaker--and above all the way in which we handle complaints.
If we go too far down the legal path and adopt legal practices, that would give rise to the question whether the rules governing hon. Members' interests should be
Column 1260embodied in the law, which would then be enforced by the courts. The matter was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) in a debate on 7 March 1990 in column 926. He rejected that view, and I agree with him. We cannot wash our hands of such business and leave it to judges. In the end, hon. Members should shoulder the responsibility for how the Privileges Committee, the Select Committee on Members' Interests or any other Select Committee go about their business. We should not leave it to others.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) was critical of the media. Labour Members have some experience of the media, especially at election time, when almost the whole of the national press is against us, so we know what it feels like to be the subject of harsh criticism. When she was speaking, I reminded myself of all the arguments that have been used in the long past against reporting of the House and against televising the House, a more recent debate in which hon. Members were involved prior to the last election. They stood up and said that televising the House would change its character and that it would be quite wrong. It is interesting to note that some voices I hear now say that those criticism were justified. We have not reverted back, however, and we are not likely to.
After opening our doors and allowing the public to listen to our debates-- reporting of the House was once a crime--hon. Members did not decide to revert back to previous practice. Likewise, we decided that it was right to continue radio coverage and the televising of Parliament--we did not go back on that decision either. Some right hon. and hon. Members will remember that it is almost 28 years to the day that the motion that the House should be televised was lost by one vote.
When I spoke in the debate on 13 July that decided to refer the allegations to the Privileges Committee, I expressed concern that the public were already getting the feeling that all hon. Members were on the make. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should be concerned about the reputation of the House, not because we are concerned about a club for privileges and rights, but because this is the very place that sustains our democracy. If the electorate form the view that they can have no confidence in Parliament, that in itself is a grave matter that will affect parliamentary democracy.
We do not join this place because we want to be members of a club. Despite all the great differences between us, first and foremost our concern must be to sustain the parliamentary democracy that has served the British people so well. I find it almost impossible to believe, given the serious allegations at stake, that Conservative Members really think that the public will have confidence in the outcome if the Privileges Committee decides to sit in private. Here I strongly disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). It would be wrong, however, if the Committee held its final deliberations in public. Like a jury, the Committee should decide these matters in private, given that the fate of certain hon. Members is in the balance. But I see no reason otherwise-- apart from a few compelling circumstances--why sittings should be held in private.
Column 1261The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) has already pointed out that, if the Attorney-General comes to the view that certain matters are unfairly being raised, he will advise the Committee accordingly. What if the Scott inquiry had been held in private? It too dealt with a great many allegations. Could anyone seriously believe that that inquiry would have come to just conclusions if its proceedings had been held in private? The public's confidence in the inquiry is largely determined by its membership and by its proceedings, televised and reported, being held in public. Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay) rose --
Despite all the fears that have been expressed--no doubt genuinely--by Tory Members this afternoon, I find it difficult to believe that, if the Privileges Committee decides to sit in public this time, it will revert in future to private deliberation. Once it takes the decision to sit in public, it will keep doing so in future--and rightly so. I hope that the motion before us will be duly carried.
Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme): I warmly welcome the establishment of the Nolan committee and the referral of recent allegations to the Committee of Privileges. It is vital that the standing of Parliament be restored to what we and our constituents expect it to be.
There can be few in this House who do not believe that, whenever possible, the deliberations of the House and of parliamentary Committees should be held in public--unless there are very good reasons to the contrary. The Father of the House rightly said that grave matters of the type that are before the Committee have always before been dealt with in a non-party- political spirit. Judging by today's debate, that will, tragically, not be possible this time. It is clear that many Opposition Members seek not justice but party political advantage.
The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) admitted that it is unprecedented for the Privileges Committee to hold its deliberations in public, and there are good reasons for that. There can be few Opposition Members who believe in their hearts that those who stand accused before the Committee will be given a fairer hearing if its deliberations are held in public.
So I repeat that it is for party political advantage alone that the Opposition are standing on its head the precedent that they pursued when in government. Quotations from Lord Callaghan and others repeated here today have reiterated the sound reasons why previous leaders of the Labour party have felt it important that the Committee sit in private. As the High Court of Parliament, we have, above all else, a responsibility scrupulously to ensure that Members of this House or outsiders--possibly from the press--be treated as innocent until proved guilty. They must be given a fair hearing. Our constituents would expect nothing less.
The questions of probity at stake in this case go much wider. They include the press, notably that most sanctimonious of journals The Guardian . I trust that the curious behaviour of its editor will be considered by the Committee. Just what did Mr. Peter Preston think he was doing in allowing The Guardian to be used by Mr. Al Fayed as a pawn in his apparent attempt to blackmail the
Column 1262Prime Minister, and in his determination to destroy the careers of Ministers when the Prime Minister refused to bow to that blackmail? The editor of The Guardian got so carried away with the role vouchsafed to him by Mr. Al Fayed that he stole House of Commons letterhead and committed forgery, fabricating a letter purporting to come from a Minister of the Crown. By his own admission this was done to protect the position of none other than Al Fayed himself. How fantastic that the editor of a once great journal of high repute should resort to such devices and apparently engage in a conspiracy to bring down Ministers--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. I must respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that this is a very narrow debate and that he has gone beyond the bounds of the motion. Would he please return to it?
Mr. Churchill: In our efforts to ensure that the standing of this House is restored to what it should be in the eyes of our constituents, it is also essential that the Privileges Committee safeguard the rights of those who appear before it. I happen to believe that that cannot be done under the glare of the television cameras and without the safeguards available to defendants in a court of law.
Few people in this country regard the O.J. Simpson trial in the United States as anything other than a media circus and a travesty of justice. I trust that that is not what the Opposition are trying to bring about in the Privileges Committee. Therefore, although I think that the Committee's report must and will be debated in public, and all its evidence must be published, its hearings should be in private, except when it decides to the contrary. I shall therefore support the Prime Minister's amendment, calling for the Committee itself to be the judge of whether it deliberates in public or private. 6.37 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): This debate is held against the background of Members of Parliament being extremely well paid, and against the background of 4 million people being without a job and pensioners without two ha'pennies to rub together.
For the past few hours, I have been listening to the Tory Members who have created all this havoc indulging in special pleading just because two, or possibly more, of them are to finish up before the Privileges Committee. It is high time we got rid of all this mumbo-jumbo about that Committee. It should not be the judge and jury of Members of Parliament. The Opposition complain about the police sitting in judgment on themselves. That is why the Privileges Committee should not examine the conduct of Members. There are millions of people outside who would welcome the opportunity of having their friends sit in judgment upon them. In the debate Tory Members have been saying, "We are special, we are above anybody out there. We want special treatment. "
Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey) rose --
The Committee has nine Tory Members and eight Labour Members-- [Interruption.] Well, seven Labour Members and another hon. Member: I do not know what he calls himself nowadays. There are eight Opposition Members on the Committee. Tory Members say that it is
Column 1263a kangaroo court, but not only do they have a majority, they will have a casting vote by a member of the Cabinet. They have the cheek to talk about not getting justice, but all the cards are stacked in their favour.
I do not think for a minute that the House will disband the Privileges Committee. Of course we will not: we will go ahead with it. I support my hon. Friends who have called for it to meet in public. What is wrong with meeting in public? All the other Select Committees meet in public from time to time, and many people are brought before them.
In any case, in the House any hon. Member can refer to anybody, as many do from time to time, and cannot be pulled up for it. The debate is about Conservative Members protecting their own. My guess is that, if two Labour Members had to go before the Committee, Tory Members would be telling another story. [Hon. Members:-- "Oh no, they would not!"] Oh yes, they would. The remarks of Tam Dalyell were apt.
Mr. Skinner: My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was apt: we really need a Register that means something. We need to make sure that people do not register late, and that they register all their outside interests.
Members of Parliament should not have any outside jobs. We are paid £32,000 a year, and anyone who cannot live on that should not put up for the job. As well as all the outside interests, all the money attached to them should be put in the register. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) said that he could not live on his parliamentary salary, and made £300,000 a year from outside interests. That was reported in a newspaper. It is a scandal that, when many people outside are having a job to live, we should be discussing the debacle that arises from Members of Parliament making money hand over fist. Only when that has cleared up will the debate mean anything.
I support the idea of the Committee sitting in public, but the real problem is that it is high time we had a system in which there is no conflict of interests. If Members want to represent their constituents, they should do it every day of the week, and not represent outside interests--and not make a packet of money and line their pockets.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): The raw, corrosive view expressed by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is the one that the House must address. There is a crisis of confidence in the workings of the House, and we must address that if we are to preserve the House's authority. We make the laws, and if we are disreputable or perceived as disreputable, what authority can the law of our land carry? That is fundamental to our system of government. The motion is reasonable, and I see nothing in the arguments against it. They gainsay public anxiety on a level that I have never before perceived. One does not lightly throw away the arguments of precedent, because they were argued and reasoned in their time. In the debate, we heard the echoes of yesteryear when they were reinforced again.
Column 1264Hon. Members have spoken about natural justice, but have not the cases of my two accused hon. Friends who will come before the Privileges Committee been splashed in the most malign way, insensitive to the sensibilities of their families, their constituencies and the reputation of the House? Have they had the might to defend themselves against that? Not one of my hon. Friends has argued, "Is there not a man who wants to shout out in front of a committee, I am innocent'? Have I not the right to ask that hearings be in public? Is there not an opportunity to dispel the more sleazy allegations that are laid against one?"
The issue is of confidence in our system, and, as I have tried to emphasise, the outcome rests on our authority. The importance of the House, why we are here, is to attest to the respectability and responsibility of our people.
I spoke earlier about the making of laws. If we are perceived as undesirable, as people on the make who are here only for what we can get, the authority of our laws will fall. What else are we, as a democratic people and as ordinary citizens, but the instrument by which we perceive ourselves--the House of Commons? It is fundamental to get that right.
There is now a watershed in our affairs. People outside do not perceive us as benign, but they have an intuitive feeling that Parliament is somehow essential to their well-being, and they are right. But if we are perceived as corrupt, that concept will be undermined.
Why should the hearings be held in secret? It is because there is a fear that people will be traduced by headlines on each day's reporting. But who will write the report? Is not the judgment finally to be debated in the House, and will we allow ourselves to be traduced? We must speak up for ourselves.
I do not doubt that most hon. Members are absolutely honourable. I have no reason to suppose that anyone is dishonourable until that has been proven. Is that not the presumption that members of the Committee will have in their hearts when they hear the evidence, traduced as it may be by the despicable, low-life press in some parts of our society? Do we not know how to judge that? We must have confidence in ourselves and in our rights. We must go out and proclaim, "The House is decent and honest. We have nothing to fear".
Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): No hon. Member has yet said that the Opposition motion will in practice require that nearly every sitting be in private. That is because the motion speaks of "natural justice" as an exception to the rule of having it open to the public. In this context, natural justice means fairness.
How can it ever be fair to allow an accusation against an hon. Member which will affect his whole future livelihood to be made through trial by television--because
Column 1265that is what it would be? Not the whole case, but only part of it, would be presented. There would be summaries, sound bites and excerpts at the end of the day. How can that possibly be fair? That is as absurd as it was for the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) to say that there was no party political interest in the matter. The right hon. Gentleman smiled as he said it. Opposition Members should have been honest enough to say that the whole reason for the motion is to try to embarrass the Government. Instead, they made portentous speeches.
How can it possibly be fair to make an allegation in public against an hon. Member without giving him notice of the details--a prior statement to which he can apply his mind? Is there any provision for that? How can it possibly be fair to try an hon. Member in public and not allow him the opportunity to be represented by a lawyer who can remind him of his rights, obligations and duties? How can it be fair to make an allegation in front of someone who is not a qualified judge, and who does not have the power to exclude evidence that may be intensely prejudicial and unfair? How can it be fair that a public hearing making a specific allegation of wrongdoing against an individual can stop him having the right to call witnesses in his defence if he so wishes? None of that is fair. It does not matter quite so much if the hearing is not reported all over the media, but it does matter very much if it is. At the end of the day, under the present procedures the report produced by the Committee can be sensibly doctored so as not to cause unnecessary harm and distress. What would be the guarantee that the day-by-day media reports of a public hearing would ever be fair, when the editor of The Guardian can flout the rules of the House, flout the laws of the land, flout natural justice and fairness and flout common decency?
It must be patently clear from the events of the past few weeks that the media are interested only in witch hunts, and that they will go on extracting every single ounce of blood from the dissatisfaction, embarrassment or personal pain of someone in public life, provided that that helps to sell newspapers.
The Press Complaints Commission is no defence--we cannot complain afterwards to that body. Of course, if we did, who would we find on the commission but the editor of The Guardian , whose judgment is so poor that, even in today's broadcast, he could not understand that what he had done was wrong. We cannot ask for the help of the law of libel, because these occasions will be privileged.
It is absolutely naive of hon. Members to ignore the fact that most people believe that there is no smoke without fire. People believe what they want to believe, and if that belief can be fed by tittle-tattle and critical allegation, it will be. Where, in that, is the justice and fairness for which this House must stand? The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said that we are here to serve the public, not to treat this place as a club. We serve the public by publishing the evidence and conclusions of the Committee. We serve them by ensuring that our proceedings are fair. If our proceedings to our own Members are not fair, what chance do we have of persuading those outside, whom we are here to serve, that when we deal with them we will be fair?
Column 1266We serve the public by having less and less, rather than more and more, of the daily news media--whether it be television, radio or the press--dealing with sleaze allegation after sleaze allegation, most of which are too trivial for words. In this real world, feeding the media hunger for scandal, however trivial, is not the best way to serve this nation or to protect the honour of Parliament. We are the least corrupt country in the whole of the western world. Unless we have confidence and belief in ourselves, and unless we ensure that our processes are fair to the people against whom allegations have been made and who stand accused, we have no right to be here.
I shall vote for the Government's amendment, because it makes sense. The Opposition motion does not change anything, because once they concede that, if the proceedings are to be fair they must be held in private, they are acceding to the Government's amendment. 6.53 pm
Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) rightly said that the issues we are debating today are fundamental, and that it is important for the reputation of this House that we make the right decisions. I start by reminding the House of the motion that we are debating, and why the Opposition have tabled it. It states that the Committee of Privileges should sit in public, except in certain circumstances. In other words, there should be a presumption that the Committee meets in public, but that it is recognised that there may be compelling reasons why that cannot always be the case.
We tabled the motion to give the House the opportunity to express its opinion--not to give an instruction--to the Committee of Privileges, so that it knows the feeling of the House on how it should proceed from now on.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) rightly said that the issue is not, and should not be, one of simple party politics. I hope that, when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster replies to the debate, he will say that the Government have decided to follow the Labour lead and allow a free vote on this important issue.
I very much regret the remarks of the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), because the Opposition have not sought to make this a party political issue-- [Interruption.] If Conservative Members believe that we have, they do not understand the very real questions in the public mind about the workings of the House. These matters raise very real issues of confidence in Parliament itself. It is important that every hon. Member realises that that is not healthy for democracy.
I agree with many of the comments made by the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). He said that the standing of the House has fallen and that we should all want to deal with that problem. We must establish public confidence in the House of Commons, and we must all be concerned about the recent allegations.
Column 1267We must all be concerned about the allegation that led to the specific reference to the Committee of Privileges--that Members of Parliament have taken cash for tabling parliamentary questions. I take issue with the Leader of the House, who said that that was not unprecedented. I most sincerely hope that it is. We have certainly not heard that sort of allegation before, which is one reason why there has been a loss of public confidence in our institution. Mr. Streeter rose --
The House must find a balance between trial by allegation on the one hand, and cover-up and the impression of secrecy on the other. If the Committee continues to meet only in private, public confidence will not be restored. Surely that must concern every hon. Member. There is one point of agreement. It is clear--no one disputes this--that the Privileges Committee can meet in public. Standing Orders allow that. The real question is whether it would be wise for the Committee to do so. I believe that for the Committee to meet in public is the only way to quell public fears and to enhance the reputation of the House.
I say that for three reasons. First, we must re-establish confidence in the House and in our deliberations. Secondly, there must be clarity in our deliberations, which again requires openness. Thirdly, there must be consistency between the approach of the Privileges Committee and that of the Nolan inquiry, whose meetings the Prime Minister says should be held in public as often as possible. Indeed, the chairman of that committee, without knowing what evidence would be put before him, has already decided that the committee should meet in public whenever possible.
The public will have confidence in the findings of the Privileges Committee only if they also have confidence in its workings. We do not want trial by allegation, but public confidence will not be restored by the image of the House acting as a gentlemen's club, dealing with allegations behind closed doors. It would undermine public confidence even further if there were a feeling that we had joined forces to settle these questions between us in private. That would send the wrong signals to the public. This is their Parliament, not ours.
The question is whether there should be a balance between the Committee sitting in private and in public. Various hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) offered suggestions for arriving at that balance. The Leader of the House said that individual members of the Committee might feel inhibited about asking questions in public, but it would be open to them to suggest that certain sittings take place in private--and the Committee itself could decide such matters. We could have a parallel arrangement to that for Select Committees. That must be the way forward.
I was impressed by the speech of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup and by the comments of other senior Conservatives outside the House, such as those of Lord Howe yesterday. They acknowledge that the world
Column 1268is changing, and that, since Select Committee procedures were adopted, the public have come to expect a new level of openness. We must make progress with that.
I remind the House of the issues that led to the matter being referred to the Committee of Privileges. One was the question of hon. Members accepting cash for tabling parliamentary questions. Another, raised by hon. Members themselves, was the actions of individuals who apparently tried to bribe individual Members of Parliament as an experiment. Both matters are before the Committee of Privileges. I further remind Conservative Members that, when those issues were debated on 13 July, the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick), against whom allegations have been made, welcomed the reference to the Privileges Committee. He said on that and other occasions that he and other Conservative Members wanted to make statements about the role played by the press. Surely it is in the interests of those against whom allegations have been made for at least part of the hearings to be in public. Hon. Members facing allegations may want to have those allegations and their defence heard in public. In the July debate, one hon. Member who had been invited to table questions for cash and refused said that he saw no reason for the Committee not meeting in public. At least two of my colleagues, the hon. Members for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), said that they would prefer the Committee's hearings to be in public.
I hope that the Minister for open government will not defend the idea that the Privileges Committee should meet in private. I hope that he will accept our suggestion that there should be a free vote, agree that public confidence in the House has been shaken in an unprecedented way, and accept that serious allegations have been made. If politicians want to be treated as professionals and to earn any respect from the public, we must not only get our own house in order but be seen to do so.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. David Hunt): I first welcome the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) to her new responsibilities. The hon. Lady must understand why she received the reaction she did when she urged the House to approach the subject in a non- partisan way. My right hon. and hon. Friends have been outraged at the way in which, outside the Chamber, many Opposition Members have irresponsibly sought to use trial by allegation.
I concede that this has been a responsible debate, thanks to the opening speeches. My right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council, in a statesmanlike way, set out all the problems and obstacles that would lie in the way of accepting the Opposition's motion.
The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) followed the theme of approaching this important subject in a non-partisan way. In one or two ways, he struck a new approach. He advised the House never to lose its temper in public, and never to engage in party political banter when discussing such issues. The new, biologically improved right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East is one whose progress we will watch most carefully.
Column 1269I do not have time fully to respond to all the important points raised, but I will comment on two in particular. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) urged that the Committee of Privileges should deliberate in public--and he warned that, if it did not, he would attend and report its activities. That would be most irresponsible. I do not believe that any right hon. or hon. Member who has spoken in this debate supports the right hon. Gentleman's view. His proposal is certainly not allowed under the Standing Order that we have been debating, which allows for Strangers to be admitted only during the examination of witnesses, not during the deliberative process. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will rethink his position.
I do not believe that many were persuaded by the arguments of my right hon. Friend the Father of the House that witnesses should give evidence in public, but we were persuaded that, very often, individuals coming before the Committee would have their very reputations at stake, and that matters should be dealt with as quickly as possible.
My right hon. Friends the Members for Woking (Sir C. Onslow) and for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins), and many other right hon. and hon. Friends, gave cogent reasons why natural justice is so important in all the deliberations of the Committee of Privileges. It would be risky to set aside a precedent of many years that underpins a unique parliamentary privilege, and suddenly to dictate to the Committee that it should meet partly in public and partly in private. I took careful note of the words of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East. He said:
"The House is generally agreed that members of the Privileges Committee will make their own decisions on the matter."
So why have the motion, because the right hon. Gentleman is following the words of the amendment? I strongly urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to do the same.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question: --
The House divided: Ayes 264, Noes 301
Division No. 315] [7.08 pm